Deserted Ocean: A Social History of Depletion
Reviewed by for Reader Views
Norman Holy’s latest book “Deserted Ocean: A Social History of Depletion” is nothing less than a strident wakeup call for all who depend on the harvests of the sea for food, livelihood, or both. The North Atlantic is being “overfished,” that is to say, fishing a population faster than it can replace itself. Thus, it has been transformed from “overfished” to “deserted.”
So who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Is it the result of overaggressive fishing by modern fleets of large vessels equipped with large nets and the latest in electronic fishing gear, sometimes operating from nearby factory ships? That was my first guess, but I was wrong. Holy asserts that the factory ships, which didn’t come along until the 1950s, only finished the job of depleting the North Atlantic before moving on. In fact, the North Atlantic was overfished in many coastal areas prior to 1900 when many men still relied on sail power.
The basic premise of “Deserted Ocean” is that it took over one thousand years for man to overfish the North Atlantic and to support this premise Holy very skillfully provides a side-by-side comparison of what a selected portion of the ocean’s bottom looks like today versus what it looked like a thousand years ago. This is no easy task and requires a great deal of assumptions and subjectivity to pull it off. But Holy manages to do so by methodically extrapolating what is known today into a vision of what the fish and undersea population was like in early times.
As far as I am concerned, the bottom line of “Deserted Ocean” came early in the book with the following quote which is worth repeating; “Fishermen have known for five centuries that some fish stocks were disappearing from coastal areas. Whenever a fish stock disappeared from one area of the North Atlantic, the response had been for fishermen to relocate to some other area where there were more abundant catches.”
The above quote begs the question, if the North Atlantic coastal waters have become depleted, where will fishermen move next to find more abundant catches? The answer is not encouraging. “In Dead Water,” a 2008 report by the United Nations, says that as much as 80 percent of the world’s main fish catch species have now been “exploited beyond or close to their harvest capacity.” The report goes on to say that if we carry on fishing the way we do, by 2048 all of the species that we currently fish for food will have been exploited to exhaustion.
“Deserted Ocean: A Social History of Depletion” by Norman Holy is a well-written book that carries a powerful message—a message that we would all do well to heed.